Friday, April 19, 2013

The Trouble with Murder: Chapter One



Chapter One

     I was late. I’d agreed to meet Stacy Karnes at six. It was ten minutes past, and I was another ten away. Traffic was light; maybe I could cut that time in half. I hoped she would still be there when I arrived. Some people wouldn’t be.

     I hit end as the call dropped to voicemail. I’d already left a message. Stacy wasn’t answering her phone.

     Stacy had called me that morning and asked to see the apartment. She had pressed me for a same-day appointment. Something in her voice had caused me to agree, even though it required me to work late. Already crammed full, my schedule hadn’t afforded me the time I’d needed when a new client had walked into my office that evening. Now I was late.

     I turned into the parking lot off Elizabeth Street. The building, a three-story affair built with contemporary lines four years before, had originally been designed for senior living. At the time, it had been called Harriett Valley Estates, named for Harriett Van Patten, a local socialite who was of both the right age and financial status to bankroll such a project. She even lived in the building herself until her death a year ago.

     But Elizabeth Street, not far from the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins, Colorado, is hopping with dozens of fast food places, twice as many bars, and a hundred other businesses all drawing great numbers of college-aged customers. And when catering to college students, it isn’t profitable to shut your doors at six o’clock. The seniors had found constant disruption and occupancy fell.

     After Mrs. Van Patten died, no one fought very hard to hang on to the Estates idea. White Real Estate and Property Management had purchased it, renamed it, and begun leasing it to college students. I became the primary leasing agent and property manager for the location, now called Elizabeth Tower Apartments. With only three stories, it isn’t much of a tower, but no one thinks anything of this since it isn’t in a valley, either.

     The lot was nearly full. I parked in one of the many handicap places White Real Estate had yet to repaint and jumped out. My foot hit the sidewalk as an ear-piercing scream rang out.

     I felt my heart leap in my chest then settle into a run, hammering against my sternum. My hair was standing up and an involuntary shiver slithered down my spine. I’d never heard such a scream.

     I continued for the door, looking around the lot. I couldn’t tell where the scream had come from. I saw no one. But I noticed I was walking faster all the same.

     Perhaps it had been a prank. The proximity to campus and so many bars couldn’t be ignored, as Harriett Valley Estates property managers had discovered. Drunken college kids were notorious for playing pranks. But I couldn’t overlook the uneasy feeling that lingered. And it told me this was something else.

     I yanked open the lobby door, built extra wide to accommodate wheelchairs, and strode in. I barely cleared the threshold when I stopped dead. In front of the elevators to my right, a figure dressed in black was kneeling over a young woman sprawled on the floor.

     “Uh-oh,” I heard myself breathe.

     The figure had lifted his or her head at the sound of the door. For one of the longest moments of my life, the figure stared at me, cold, dark eyes burning through the slits of the black ski mask. I stared back. I tried to think, tried to keep breathing. But mostly I just tried not to blink.

     Then the moment was broken and time moved again. The figure jumped up, attention fully on me now. Dressed in head-to-toe black, it was difficult to discern any significant details apart from one. The six-inch knife in the figure’s right hand, stained with dark red blood, was quite recognizable.

     The figure ran toward me and I dropped into a defensive stance, falling back on years of training. The figure closed the distance between us and swung the knife at my chest. I stepped aside, used my left arm in an outward block, and thrust the heel of my right hand forward. Air rushed out of the assailant’s lungs in a whoosh.

     At the same time, an elevator bell dinged and the stairwell door crashed open. The lobby was suddenly full of cheerful, carefree chattering. And people.

     The figure struggled to get upright and staggered for the door. Three people stepped off an elevator to my left while two more emerged from the stairwell. The attacker stumbled out the door.

     I hurried toward the victim, glancing at my inadvertent rescuers. One of them, a tall blonde I’d signed to a lease two months ago, was holding a cell phone. I pointed to her.

     “Call 911.”
     
     I dropped to my knees beside the victim and took in the dark red stain spreading across her gray CSU sweatshirt. Several more people arrived in the lobby, many of them gathering around us, staring, talking, pointing.

     “Anyone have a towel or anything?” I asked the group at large.

     Mostly people stared back, wide-eyed and confused. A few others just shook their heads.

     There were wide-eyed stares and confused looks while others shook their heads. A guy pushed to the front of the crowd as he balled up a shirt. He dropped to his knees opposite me wearing jeans and nothing else.

     “Great,” I said, reaching for it. I noticed my hands were visibly shaking. “Hold it here and press.” I pulled the shirt down to her abdomen and he applied pressure. For all the good it would do. The blood was practically pouring out of her.

     “Where’s that ambulance?” I demanded, trying to find the blonde woman in the crowd around me.

     “It—it’s on the way!” someone croaked urgently. A male. I didn’t know who or where he was.

     I turned back to the girl and placed two fingers against the side of her neck. I felt her pulse beat under my fingertips. It was beating fast. Pumping the blood out of her body that much faster.

     She was pretty, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, about my age, maybe younger, with shoulder-length blonde hair.

     “Anyone know her?” asked the man holding the shirt, looking around.

     There were negative murmurs and head-shakes all around.

     I thought I knew who she was.

     But who would do such a thing to her? And why? Had this been a random attack or was she specifically targeted? I didn’t know which would be better—for her or for me.

     My brain jumped ahead and I realized once the police and EMS became involved it would be difficult for me to get any information about the girl. Anything I wanted to know, I needed to learn in the next two minutes.

     Driven by something I didn’t want to name and a need to confirm my suspicion, I looked around for her purse or wallet. There was nothing on the ground near her.

     The crowd suddenly split and a kid shot out. He dropped to the floor beside me, his attention on the girl.

     “I’m an EMT!” he shouted. “I know CPR!”

     The girl didn’t need CPR, but I didn’t point this out. Instead, I rose and stepped away. I had something else to do.

     Squeezing out of the group, I found myself standing in front of the elevators on the west side of the building. This was presumably where the girl had been standing when she’d been attacked. But I saw no purse or wallet unaccounted for on the floor or nearby chairs. Perhaps she hadn’t brought one.

      What woman doesn’t carry a purse? I asked myself as I moved toward the south side of the lobby. Maybe it was in her car. I hadn’t brought mine into the building either. Then I spotted it.

     A large desk had been constructed in the southwest corner of the lobby. At the time of the seniors, a building employee had been stationed there to assist and direct residents and visitors. TV monitors under the counter had displayed security camera feeds from the dozens of cameras installed around the building. Harriett Van Patten hadn’t necessarily minded the noise of the surrounding college students, but she hadn’t trusted them, either. She’d insisted on a state-of-the art security system and someone to man it.

     Most of the system’s functions were no longer utilized and the desk had been unmanned since we’d bought the building. Now it just held pamphlets, brochures, and the occasional coupon. And a bright yellow handbag that seemed to be without an owner.

     Skirting the crowd, I reached the counter. Inside the bag I found a wallet. My gut clenched uncomfortably as I read the name: Stacy Karnes. Thinking quickly, I pulled my phone from my pocket and snapped a photo of the ID. A cursory look through the other items in the wallet showed credit cards with the same name, a CSU student ID, and a Social Security Card. I photographed it all.

     I returned the wallet and hunted around a bit more, finding little of interest. Conspicuously absent was her cell phone. Knowing I was late, I’d tried calling her on the drive. She hadn’t answered. Maybe she’d forgotten it at home. But I wanted to confirm, needed to confirm. What if she’d had it with her, had answered my call? If she’d known I was running late, would she have waited in her car? Would that have kept her safe from whoever attacked her?

     I pushed back through the crowd and squatted beside her. The “EMT” rattled off useless but important-sounding information about her condition. I mostly tuned him out. A quick feel revealed the phone in her back pocket. She’d had it on her the whole time. Why hadn’t she answered?

     I swiped it and retreated back to the counter. In a true stroke of luck, the phone was unlocked. I heard sirens in the distance and managed a couple photos before I stuffed her phone into her purse and mine into my jacket.

     Then the party really got started. Through the lobby doors I saw a fire truck arrive, followed closely by a police car, then an ambulance a minute behind it. Everyone had their lights flashing, which danced over the walls. In two minutes, the number of people in the lobby doubled. Probably every person in the building had gathered to watch the action firsthand. Uniformed personnel occupied the remainder of the space.

     Three big, buff men dressed in yellow bunker gear, boots, and navy t-shirts with Poudre Fire Authority logos carried large bags of equipment in from the fire truck and gathered on the floor around Stacy. They were soon joined by a man and a woman from the ambulance. Meanwhile, one of the police officers, who looked like he worked out with the firemen, seemed to be in charge. He issued directions to the others, directions which consisted largely of clearing the lobby, containing the crowd, and separating witness from bystander.

     The EMT-kid refused to be cut out of the action as the firefighters settled around Stacy.

     “I’m in the EMT class,” he said to them. “I’m almost done with my clinicals. I can help.”

     The firemen shared a glance and fought to conceal smiles. One of them settled an oxygen mask over Stacy’s face while another cut open her right sleeve and secured a blood pressure cuff around her arm.

     “Is that right?” the third asked as he cut Stacy’s sweatshirt in half from hem to collar. Three ugly wounds gaped in her belly, all of which still bled freely. “You wanna help?” he asked as he pressed thick dressings to Stacy’s abdomen. “Why don’t you hold c-spine?”

     “Nothing in the assessment indicates any possible c-spine damage,” the kid said, though he jumped up anyway. He repositioned himself and dropped back to the floor, holding Stacy’s head between his hands, keeping it in-line and still.

     “C-spine damage can occur by the most unexpected injuries,” the first fireman said, as if passing on a priceless morsel of information.

     The kid bobbed his head up and down eagerly.

     I was ushered outside with everyone else. Stacy was loaded onto a gurney and wheeled away. A minute later, the ambulance rolled out of the parking lot. The fire engine left a short time later.

     Last to arrive was a van with crime scene unit painted on the side. An attractive but nerdy-looking man got out and carted two huge kits inside, where he then set to work. He took photos and set up numbered, yellow markers.

     While the others pushed to the front, trying to see what was going on, I stayed back. I didn’t really want to see any more. I’d seen enough—more than enough. And as manager of the building, I figured I’d see plenty more before it was all said and done.

     I sat on the curb with my arms around my knees. The crowd ebbed and flowed in front of me. I wanted to leave, but the police weren’t letting people go yet. Not to mention I couldn’t get my truck around their vehicles clogging up the lot.

     My phone chimed softly. I pulled it out and sighed. 7 p.m.: lincoln center! don’t forget the tickets!

     I’d forgotten to cancel the reminder when I’d given away the tickets. They had been a gift from a client, and I’d planned to spend the evening with Patrick. I quite enjoy a symphony every now and then.

     Patrick and I had dated for six months. Last month he’d gone to Hawaii for a family event. When he got back he’d quit his job, packed his stuff, and told me he was moving. Something to do with the ocean. He was gone a week later.

     Probably we broke up, even if he never said as much. This move-to-Hawaii thing seemed pretty permanent.

     I sighed again and put the phone back in my pocket. Given my dating history, the Hawaii thing was pretty mild. And I hoped the couple going in our place enjoyed the show. It was supposed to be a good one.

_____

     It didn’t take long for the police to determine who had seen anything and who hadn’t. There had only been six people in the lobby who saw the masked figure, five of them arriving just as the figure ran out. I was the sixth. At the direction of the officer in charge, the other two officers sent people away when it was established they hadn’t seen anything. They were permitted to return to their apartments, guided through the lobby between yellow cones. They were also permitted to leave. They were not permitted to stand around the parking lot within fifty feet of the building. Most people trekked back upstairs.

     When the crowd had dispersed and officers stood taking statements from the last two witnesses, the officer in charge, dressed in a navy blue uniform, came over to me. I was struck first by his height: easily six-five. I’m five-eight and I felt tiny standing beside him. He was a few years older than me and exceptionally fit. The bulletproof vest accounted for some of his bulk, but judging by his biceps, it wasn’t all vest. His wavy dark hair, cut longer than most cops’, was slightly messy, and his face was scruffy. His green eyes had a mesmerizing quality to them. The little brass nameplate on his shirtfront read ellmann.

     “I’m Detective Ellmann,” he said. His voice was deep and sure. He pulled a notebook and a pen out of his breast pocket. “I need to ask you some questions.”

     “Detective? What’s with the uniform? Don’t detectives wear bad suits?” I looked him over, taking a closer look at his badge. Sure enough, it said detective.

     “Sometimes detectives wear uniforms.” This was clearly a sore subject. “Mind if we get back to the matter at hand?”

     “Sure. Is the girl going to be okay?”

     “Don’t know yet. But her injuries are serious. What’s your name?”

     “Zoe Grey.”

     “Do you live in the building?”

     “No. I work for the property management company. I was scheduled to show Stacy an apartment.”

     And I’d been late.

     “Do you know Stacy?”

     I shook my head. “No. She called my office this morning asking for the appointment. That was the first time I’d talked to her.”

     “I understand you were the first person in the lobby after the assault. Can you tell me what happened?”

     I told him what I’d heard and seen, everything I knew of what happened, which amounted to a whole lot of not much. He dutifully scribbled notes in the small notepad. When I felt the interview was winding down, I asked if I could leave.

     He studied me for a beat, and I had the distinct impression he was seeing things I wasn’t saying. I didn’t like it. Usually, I’m much better at making sure this can’t happen. I attributed this fluke to the fact that I was still slightly stunned and unprepared for police scrutiny.

     Nearby, another officer concluded an interview and sent his witness on her way. Spying Ellmann, the officer ambled over. As he did, his eyes flicked my direction and he looked me up and down. I felt a wave of disgust roll through me.

     “Ellmann,” the officer interrupted. “We’ve talked to everyone.” His nameplate said pratt.

     Pratt was about six feet tall, with dirty blonde hair and brown eyes. He was very slender; even the gun belt and assorted cop paraphernalia were unable to hide how narrow his hips were.

     “You the one who saw the whole thing?” Pratt asked me.

     I nodded.

     Something dark seemed to skitter across his brain and he tried to suppress a smirk.

     “Since you touched the body,” he said, again looking me up and down, “we should probably take your clothes into evidence. I’ll bag them.”

     Body? Stacy had been alive when she left. Had that changed?

      It seemed Pratt volunteered to see me in the buff a little too quickly.

     “No,” Ellmann snapped before I could respond. “Why don’t you take measurements of the parking lot?”

     It sounded a lot like the fireman’s c-spine direction to me, but I might have misinterpreted. Maybe parking lot measurements would prove useful to the case.

     “Stacy’s dead?” I asked after Pratt had sauntered away, obviously grumpy. There was fear and sorrow in my voice that surprised even me.

     Ellmann looked back to me, his eyes slightly wide. That was the only indication of what he was thinking or feeling; everything else was carefully secured behind his well-practiced cop-face.

     “No, she’s not dead,” he said. His tone was reassuring, certain. “Last I heard from the hospital, she’s in surgery. I’m not sure yet what her prognosis is.”

     I exhaled, unaware I’d been holding my breath.

     Oh, thank God.

     “Are you sure you don’t know her?”

     I looked up at Ellmann and nodded. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

     “I have everything I need for now. If there’s anything else, I’ll be in touch.” He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a card, which he gave to me. “Call if you think of anything, no matter how small. And you’ll need to come to the station tomorrow to sign some paperwork.”

     I tucked the card into my pocket, then picked my way across the parking lot back to my truck. The lot had cleared considerably, though a small group of people was still gathered on the sidewalk just beyond the police boundary, watching. I climbed into the cab, then maneuvered out around the remaining emergency vehicles and drove home.

     Home as it stood now wasn’t a comforting thought for me, although I planned to remedy this on Saturday, once I moved into my new place. The house I would live in for two more nights was large: five bedrooms, one of which was a separate, private guest suite. There was also a two-bedroom apartment above the garage. Every one of the five bedrooms was currently occupied. So was the apartment.

     When I was eighteen, I’d moved to Denver for the man I’d thought I was going to marry, and while the relationship hadn’t worked out, the new job had. It was my first taste of property management, and I discovered I had a knack for it. I rose through the ranks quickly and was making an obscene amount of money. Among other things, I began purchasing property.

     My mother has never been much of a mother. It wasn’t long before she’d needed a place to stay. I wouldn’t have thought much of this except at the time my brother, Zach, was still in her charge. So I’d purchased a house here in Fort Collins and moved them in, renting out the apartment and guest suite to help cover the mortgage. I’d debated bringing Zach to live with me, ultimately deciding against it because I didn’t want to uproot him from the only life he’d ever known, and the metropolitan part of Denver I was living in then wasn’t the type of place where teenagers could ride their bikes in the streets.

     But this is why kids shouldn’t make decisions like these, because I realized later what Zach had really needed was a mother and a role model, not his friends or afternoon bike rides. His first run-in with the police at age fifteen had gotten my attention. His second a month later got me packing. Maybe my career in Denver hadn’t completely run its course, but it had been nearing the end; I would have resigned within a year anyway had I not decided to push up the timetable.

     Initially, I’d rented a condo. But it became clear that simply being nearer wasn’t making an impact. Zach was arrested for the first time for smoking marijuana two weeks after I’d moved back. I really didn’t want to live with my mother again; there was a reason I’d moved out when I was seventeen. But I’d proven time and again I’d do anything for my brother, and at that time, the simplest thing was to store my stuff and move into one of the open basement bedrooms.

     I’d planned on the arrangement being temporary, just long enough to put Zach back on the right course. But that had proved a more difficult task than my twenty-one-year-old self could have anticipated. Zach barely graduated high school, got arrested a couple more times, did a brief stint in juvenile detention, and had his driver’s license revoked. Finally, at twenty, he seemed to have grown up a bit. He’d held a job for eight months without any incident and almost perfect attendance. He’d gotten his driver’s license back. And he had enrolled in community college where he was going to class regularly and making a considerable effort to maintain decent grades.

     All of this meant I could move out without feeling as if I was abandoning him again. He was even talking about renting a place of his own with a couple of his buddies. So most my stuff was already packed, and Saturday couldn’t come soon enough.

     I was considering taking a short vacation. Not to go anywhere, but just to have time off work. Life had been exceedingly stressful for me lately. And so very monotonous. Somewhere along the line I’d settled into a routine, and now it consumed my life. I thought a few days off work would be nice. I could relax, settle into my new place, maybe do some fun stuff, something new and different. As the house loomed nearer and nearer, the idea sounded better and better. I made a mental note to speak to my boss about it tomorrow.

     As usual, the house was as bright as noon when I returned. Didn’t matter that it was nearly midnight. I grabbed my bag and shuffled to the door, doing my best to prepare myself for what I knew was waiting. Mostly I failed miserably.

     “Where the hell have you been?” my mother snapped when I came into the kitchen. She was dressed in sweats, a rag in one hand and cleaning products in the other. The kitchen smelled strongly of bleach, with scents of other cleaners choking the air.

     “And why are you dressed like that?” Her familiar tone was harsh, unkind, accusing. “What kind of trouble have you been getting into? You’re always in trouble. Ever since you were a baby. Not like your brother; no child sweeter than that boy. Sometimes I wonder how you could be mine.”

     I looked down at myself as I shuffled to the cupboard. (I didn’t want to look, but I couldn’t help it.) My black trousers were wrinkled, and I suspected the smudge on my right knee was blood. My blue top was equally rumpled and hanging off my shoulders slightly crooked. It was easy to understand my mother’s alarm, given my current state and the vain importance she placed on appearance.

     I pulled down a glass and filled it with ice water.

     “We’ll talk about it later,” I said, hardly aware of her tone anymore, but not wholly able to ignore it, either.

     “No, we will not! When are you going to grow up? Some of us have real jobs and responsibilities. At least your brother is trying to make something of himself. When are you going to do the same? You’re always in trouble.”

     Someone had put the record on the player, but it wasn’t aligned correctly. The record turned, played the same few lines, then circled back to play them again. Always the same few lines.

     “I know,” I said, leaving the kitchen. Most of the defeat and sorrow I heard in my voice was the result of what happened to Stacy Karnes. But not all of it. In any case, there was no point engaging her; she couldn’t be reasoned with when she was in this state.

     The guest suite door opened and Donald poked his head out. He was one of two unrelated people currently living in the house. Not an altogether bad guy, I was fonder of Donald than any of the other renters, past or present. He was five-nine with a slight paunch, in his late fifties, had perfectly trimmed—if outdatedly styled—gray hair and brown eyes that were always seen through thick, dark-framed glasses.

     “What’s all the racket? I heard yelling.” He looked me over through bleary eyes as he adjusted the glasses on his nose. “What happened to you?”

     “Work turned into a witness-for-the-police thing when I sort of saw a woman stabbed. How was your day?”

     He shrugged and stuffed his hands into the pockets of the red plaid bathrobe neatly tied around him. “Boring.”

     “Lucky bastard.”



Read chapter two or buy the book.

3 comments:

  1. I want to read the whole thing, but i will settle with chapter 2! Bri's Aunt

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  2. Looking forward to reading more!!!

    ReplyDelete